The Focus Course

Music for Deep Work

I’ve always loved music, from picking out melodies on the piano as a kid, to specializing in a music education program through college, it has been a central theme through a lot of my life. Since college, I’ve had less to do with making or playing music besides occasionally tinkering with our old upright piano from time to time.

As someone that spends a good deal of time staring at screens for my work, music definitely plays a role in some of my daily rituals.

Each morning of work starts with my notebook, which really started at the end of the previous workday. Waiting for me are the day’s most important tasks. Complete these, and I’ll be on track for the week.

As I prepare my brain to start cranking on the day’s tasks, I slide on my headphones and hit play on my playlist called Start Here. The same music, every morning. As the music starts rolling, my brain warms up and starts firing on all cylinders.

For me, music it part of my morning routine. It’s one of the signals that tell my mind that it’s time to focus. Nothing matters beside the single task at hand. Nothing is urgent or needs my attention. Distractions can wait. I’ve got work to do.

Each day I’ve found that I have, at most, about three hours of deep work time. Beyond that, my brain hits a wall. This could be writing, learning, or solving a problem we’re working on. Usually two hours of this is spent in the morning, and then I’ll get another solid hour in the afternoon. Outside of that, the rest of my day is spent on more administrative tasks.

Two Solid Playlists

There’s two primary playlists I use: one for the morning hours, and one for the afternoon. They are distinctly different and serve two different purposes.

Start Here

My morning playlist is called Start Here.

There was a period I would choose a different album or playlist to listen to every day, but I found it ended up being counter-productive because I would spend time thinking about what music I should listen to and then inevitably change my mind two or 15 minutes later. Music was supposed to be helping me get in the groove, not distract me.

It can be a challenge to consistently give our time to mentally straining tasks. For me, the two most important elements to deep work are my daily shutdown and start up routines. The playlist is called start here because I know that if I can slip my headphones on and hit play that I’m halfway to doing focused work. And if I finished the day before like I usually do, the other half is already done for me as well, waiting for me in my notebook.

Hitting play on the playlist quite literally is the other part of my deep work routine. All that’s left for me to do at that point is focus.

Stank Face Goodness

This is my afternoon go-to playlist. It gives me that extra boost through the afternoon hours when it’s a little harder to lock in and focus. I’m listening to it right now in fact. ☺️

Those after-lunch hours can be a challenge for tasks that require significant amounts of thinking power. As I mentioned earlier, I usually have another 60 minutes of deep work capacity left in the afternoon, and this playlist helps me get the most of it.

Unashamedly, this is Utah. Just about all of it. (See below)

Some Good Albums

A couple of these are used in my morning and afternoon playlists. But if you’re not much of a playlist person and just need a solid album to groove to, here are a couple suggestions.

It’s worth noting these are strictly instrumental. I’ve found it incredibly difficult to do any sort of deep work while listening to music that has lyrics. It ends up being too distracting.

Dive by Tycho

This would be one of my all-time favorite albums for music to get me in the zone. The driving beats and simple melodies help me find that sweet spot of flow. I enjoy some of Tycho’s other albums, but this one in particular has been the one I keep coming back to.

Good For: Writing and Reading

Many Beautiful Things by Sleeping At Last

If you haven’t yet come across Sleeping At Last, this is another personal favorite artist. His music is poetic, even light-hearted at times, and can also be some of the most soul-searching music I’ve ever listened to.

This particular album was written as the musical score for a documentary, Many Beautiful Things. Primarily piano, with orchestral accents, it’s a refreshing listen in our noisy world.

Good For: Reflecting, Journaling, Reading

P.S. Sleeping At Last did a project on the Enneagram and wrote a song for each number. And it’s amazing.

Utah + Friends Instrumentals by Utah

Utah is a local artist here in Kansas City, which I guess may make me slightly partial. Nonetheless, these guys are creating some fun music. I’m not sure there’s an album (or track for that matter) I haven’t enjoyed.

The rhythms are simple, driving, and rigid. Mixed with bright melodies that get you in the flow. Similar to Tycho in some ways, but more natural elements of percussion, guitar, bass, and synth. The sound they’ve mastered is uniquely their own.

No specific album here.

Good For: An extra Boost, Writing, Ideation, Brainstorming

* * *

I realize that music is such a personal expression and experience. It was so tough to pick just a handful of albums and artists to recommend here. But when it comes to music that I’m listening to for writing, reflection, or any deep work activity for that matter, the list is definitely shorter.

Maybe I’ll put together another musical roundup of another category soon.

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